Trump's last-ditch effort to distract voters from his record

Look over here! It's Trump vs. Lesley Stahl!

President Trump.
(Image credit: Illustrated | Getty Images, iStock)

In January 1988, facing a tough primary fight in his campaign for president, then-Vice President George H.W. Bush went on the CBS Evening News and started a fight with anchor Dan Rather.

Bush wasn't just running for president — he was coming off the Iran-Contra scandal, in which the United States had illegally given arms to the Iranian government in exchange for the release of American hostages being held in Lebanon by Hezbollah. There were still questions swirling about Bush's involvement in the affair, so naturally, Rather brought up the topic.

Bush wasn't having it.

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"I don't think it's fair to judge a whole career, it's not fair to judge my whole career by a rehash on Iran," he told Rather, angrily — and then brought up an embarrassing incident in the anchor's recent past. "How would you like it if I judged your career by those seven minutes you walked off the set in New York? Would you like that?"

Rather kept pressing on with his questions, but the encounter immediately became more infamous for the interview's combative tone than for any revelations it produced. The vice president, who had been plagued by criticism of his manliness, spent the next few days taking a victory lap — at one point even making a vulgar reference to CBS reporter Leslie Stahl — and many observers agreed the incident helped give Bush a boost on his way to claiming both the GOP nomination and the presidency that year.

''George Bush versus Dan Rather is no contest for Republicans,'' Bush's campaign manager said.

So when President Trump on Tuesday walked out on an interview with Stahl, now a 60 Minutes correspondent — well, let's just say the whole thing felt a little familiar. Trump has been campaigning against the media for the last four years, but as the Bush-Rather incident suggests, it's been a part of the standard Republican playbook going back decades.

Indeed, the encounter with Stahl immediately became part of Trump's pitch to voters.

"You have to watch what we do to 60 Minutes, you'll get such a kick out of it," Trump told a rally in Pennsylvania on Tuesday night, "Lesley Stahl is not going to be happy."

There are a couple of reasons the tactic gets so much use.

First, it can be a useful distraction. In 1988, Bush managed to divert attention away from his questionable involvement in the arms-for-hostage scandal by getting the nation to talk about his battle with Rather. It even managed to get his biggest primary opponent, Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.), off the front pages for a day or two. "The Bush-Rather tiff has all but wiped Dole's Iowa campaign off the airwaves," the Christian Science Monitor noted at the time.

Trump — behind in the polls and running out of money and time — is desperate to distract voters from his record. His handling of the COVID-19 pandemic has been a disaster, and Stahl's questioning reportedly focused mostly on that topic. That is not just a legitimate line of inquiry; it is probably the most important issue of this election. Trump is trying to shift the spotlight away from his failings.

The other reason politicians — particularly Republican politicians — stage these media conflicts is because the press is an easy target, because it isn't all that popular. At the time of the Bush incident, The New York Times noted that opinion polling showed 60 percent of GOP voters thought news organizations "tend to favor one side." That sentiment has only grown with time: Gallup reported in August that 71 percent of Republicans have an unfavorable view of the media. (A majority of Democrats share that view, but by a smaller proportion.) Battling a reporter is an easy way to pick up a cheap win.

It's worth noting that Democrats take aim at the media, too. President Obama's administration used the Espionage Act to go after leakers and dig into the communications of news organizations that reported government secrets — dragging reporters through legal processes is more problematic than walking out of an interview. And Joe Biden growled at a reporter the other day for asking about his son.

But the incidents involving Trump, and Bush before him, have a different quality. They're theater. A performance. Trump wanted to be seen battling the media, to draw attention to his hatred of the press. This close to the election, Tuesday's tantrum can probably be viewed as a get-out-the-vote move. As with all things involving this president, it's probably best to take the whole thing with a grain of salt.

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Joel Mathis

Joel Mathis is a freelance writer who lives in Lawrence, Kansas with his wife and son. He spent nine years as a syndicated columnist, co-writing the RedBlueAmerica column as the liberal half of a point-counterpoint duo. His honors include awards for best online commentary from the Online News Association and (twice) from the City and Regional Magazine Association.